Rob Christensen

Christensen: Why the legislature meets so long

“No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” Gideon John Tucker of New York famously wrote in 1866 in deciding a legal case involving an estate.

Many undoubtedly felt a sense of relief when North Carolina’s legislature adjourned last week after coming to town in January – the longest session since 2001.

A reader wrote me the other day asking why the General Assembly took so long to finish its business. After all, Republicans are in control of the legislature and the governor’s office. And the state is not financially strapped this year.

Without rehashing all the more specific issues that held up the legislature, here are seven reasons that I think caused the legislature to stretch beyond eight months.

1. Lack of leadership. Governors traditionally set the agenda for the legislature, especially when their party is in control. Then they ride herd on their agenda. Gov. Pat McCrory doesn’t seem to have the skill set to do that. His differences with Senate leader Phil Berger nearly turned into a blood feud.

2. Republican battles. We have seen disagreements over ideology and tactics play out in Congress and in the GOP presidential nomination race. The legislature is no different. While this is an overgeneralization, McCrory and the House Republicans tend to be more incrementalists while the Senate leaders tend to be more “movement conservatives” who want broader changes right away.

3. Transparency. The budget process is far more transparent than it used to be and that takes a lot more time. One example: There was a time, back in the 1960s, when Senators Ralph Scott and Tom White would meet with Reps. Sandy Harris and Dwight Quinn at Scott’s house at Haw River and draw up the budget over the weekend, former Gov. Bob Scott once told me. They would bring the budget back to Raleigh on Monday, have it typed up and introduced on the floor Monday night, and it would be enacted on Wednesday.

4. Can’t keep ’em down on the farm. There is no rush to go home. As the sessions have gotten longer, legislators have increasingly been drawn from either the well-to-do or from retirees or they’re people who can afford to be in Raleigh for eight months. At home, many of their spouses probably don’t pay attention to them. In Raleigh, lobbyists court them, and reporters hang on their every word.

5. No time clock. Until the late 1960s, North Carolina lawmakers had three months to finish the session. After that, their pay would be cut off. Not surprisingly, they almost always finished up in three months. A group of state Senate Republicans, then in the minority, introduced a constitutional amendment in 1999 to limit sessions to 22 calendar weeks during regular sessions and to nine calendar weeks during shorter budget sessions. But the measure didn’t get very far.

6. We’re not Mayberry. North Carolina is now the 9th largest state, with almost 10 million people. Nearly every state North Carolina’s size or larger has a full-time legislature. The only exceptions are Texas and Georgia. But we still act like a small state. We have a part-time legislature paying most lawmakers $13,951 per year plus $104 per diem, plus $559 a month for office expenses. We have more population than Israel or Sweden, but we are still treating the job like a local county commissioner’s gig.

7. Voters don’t care. There is no political cost for meeting so long, even though it adds to the cost of government. Most voters don’t know how long the legislature is supposed to meet, or that lawmakers busted their budget deadline.